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World News

Evangelical leader Falwell's fate in limbo after new reports of personal scandals

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Christian university run by Jerry Falwell Jr, whose endorsement helped power Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, is set to decide Falwell’s fate as its leader on Tuesday after a young business partner detailed to Reuters what he said was a years-long sexual relationship with Falwell and his wife.

In a statement late on Monday, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Falwell has served as president for over a decade, said the evangelical leader had agreed to immediately resign as its president but then changed his mind following media reports about his decision.

The school said its board of trustees would gather on a conference call on Tuesday to discuss his fate.

The developments followed a Reuters report earlier on Monday that business partner Giancarlo Granda had come forward to say he had been in a long-running affair with Falwell’s wife and the evangelical leader.

The relationship, according to Granda, started in 2012 and continued into 2018, and involved Granda having sex with Becki Falwell while Jerry looked on. Granda shared with Reuters texts and other material that he said supported his account of a sexual relationship with the couple.

As Reuters was preparing to publish its report, Falwell issued a statement on Sunday night to the Washington Examiner in which he said Becki Falwell had had an affair with Granda. Becki Falwell did not respond to questions from Reuters. Falwell’s statement did not mention Granda’s allegation of a love triangle and he did not address questions from Reuters about the matter.

In the statement quoted by the Examiner, Falwell said that “Becki had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved.”

To read the full report on the Falwell-Granda affair, click here

FORCE IN CONSERVATIVE POLITICS

Falwell took a leave of absence from Liberty University, one of the nation’s largest religious colleges, a little over two weeks ago after posting an Instagram photo of himself standing with his pants unzipped and an arm around a young woman.

The university said in its statement on Monday night that since then, “additional matters came to light that made it clear that it would not be in the best interest of the university for (Falwell) to return from leave and serve as president.”

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“Falwell responded by agreeing to resign immediately” on Monday, the university statement said, adding that he then “instructed his attorneys to not tender the letter for immediate resignation.” It said he reversed course “following media reports” about his departure.

If Falwell, 58, were to depart from Liberty University, it would represent a remarkable fall from grace for a man who has been a potent force in American conservative politics. His surprise 2016 endorsement of Trump helped him win the Republican nomination for president.

Becki Falwell, 53, is a political figure in her own right. She served on the advisory board of the group Women for Trump, which advocates for the president’s re-election campaign. She also spoke as part of a panel with her husband and Donald Trump Jr at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the signature annual gathering of conservatives. Jerry Falwell and others refer to her as “the first lady of Liberty University.”

Falwell’s indefinite leave of absence, taken on Aug. 7, was announced in a terse statement from the board of trustees days after he posted, then deleted, the Instagram photo of himself with a young woman, whose pants were also partly undone.

Falwell later told a local radio station that the picture was meant as a good-natured joke.

The university was founded in 1971 by Falwell’s televangelist father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Currently, the university boasts an online and on-campus enrollment that exceeds 100,000 students and holds those who attend to an exacting honor code. “Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University,” the code reads.

FACETIME CONVERSATION

Granda first emerged as a figure in the Falwells’ circle two years ago, when BuzzFeed News reported that the couple had befriended Granda and gone into business with him, buying a Miami Beach youth hostel in 2013.

At the time of the BuzzFeed article, a representative of the Falwell family said Granda was “offered a share” in Alton Hostel LLC because Granda lived in Miami and would act as a manager of the youth hostel. Corporate records show that Granda currently has a stake in that venture.

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The material Granda showed Reuters includes screenshots from what Granda said was a FaceTime conversation he had with the Falwells in 2019. During that call, Granda said, Becki was naked as the two discussed their relationship while Jerry peeked from behind a door. Reuters was able to verify the content of the screenshots.

Earlier texts show a friendly and romantic dynamic between Granda and Becki Falwell. One 2012 text message, which Granda said came from Becki, read in part: “Right now I am just missing you like crazy .... Have you had this effect on all of your lady friends?”

Granda says he met the Falwells in 2012 while working as a pool attendant at the storied Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. The Falwells welcomed him into their world. He was photographed in a Liberty University aircraft, at a resort with his arm around Becki Falwell, and shaking Donald Trump’s hand in 2012 while Jerry Falwell stood in the background.

The Falwells went into business with Granda in early 2013. According to public documents, Jerry Falwell invested $1.8 million in the Miami Beach youth hostel. Granda said he was given almost a quarter stake in the business, though he invested no money. Today, corporate records show Granda and members of the Falwell family still own the Alton Hostel business.

In subsequent years, the sexual relationship continued, Granda said. But his friendship with the Falwells eventually soured, Granda told Reuters, in part because he wanted to dissolve his ties with the couple and fell into a business dispute with them.

TRUMP SEEKS ENDORSEMENT

Falwell’s decision in January 2016 to endorse Trump was one of the most dramatic surprises of that year’s presidential race. It immediately raised Trump’s support among American evangelicals, a major constituency for the party.

In his interview with Reuters, Granda said the endorsement did not surprise him. He said Falwell was considering backing Trump even before Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015.

During a May 2015 conversation at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Granda said, Falwell told him that Trump and Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, were pushing Falwell for the endorsement.

The Falwells had previously enlisted Cohen to help keep racy personal photographs from becoming public, Reuters reported last year. The Falwells didn’t comment. In his interview with Reuters, Granda said Becki Falwell had told him about Cohen’s involvement in that matter.

Cohen’s role became public after comedian Tom Arnold surreptitiously taped a conversation he had with Cohen last year. In the recording, Cohen told Arnold that the Falwells wanted to keep “a bunch of photographs, personal photographs” from becoming public. “I actually have one of the photos,” Cohen told Arnold, without going into specifics. “It’s terrible.”

Cohen did not identify who was in the photos, and Reuters was unable to determine this. To Granda’s knowledge, none of the photographs were of him.

Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Ann Maria Shibu Bengaluru, India; Editing by Blake Morrison, Michael Williams and Nick Tattersall

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